Only 36 percent of Americans participated in the November 4 elections that determined the political makeup of the legislative branch of the federal government. That’s a dismal measure of political engagement in the United States, a nation where voter turnout rates have in recent years fallen far below the levels seen in Germany and other European countries.
The Economist’s 2012 “Democracy Index” dropped the US ranking on the list of the most democratic countries to number twenty-one—with particularly low marks for popular participation in the political process.
How has the American circumstance so decayed in a nation that once so well understood the wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s observation that “democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men’s [and women’s] enlightened will”?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. But let’s start with broadcast media that are so indefensibly irresponsible that television networks cannot take time away from their relentless profiteering to present a short address by the president of the United States—an address announcing an executive order on an issue that is universally recognized as consequential and controversial.
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—four major broadcast networks—all declined to interrupt prime-time programming to air President Obama’s Thursday evening address on immigration policy. Though cable news channels, public television stations and Spanish-language stations cleared time for the president’s speech, the big broadcast networks stuck with fare such as The Biggest Loser.
The absurdity of the choice made by the networks was only heightened by the fact that the network-aligned local television stations that were set to broadcast entertainment programs rather than the president’s address just pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars for airing the slurry of negative campaign commercials that have become the crude lingua franca of our politics. A good many of those commercials focused on the issue of immigration. And the stations that aired those ads would gladly accept more cash from groups seeking to attack or embrace the president’s position.
The result is a democratically dysfunctional imbalance where viewers of the major broadcast networks and of local television stations that carry their programming can get more information from paid political advertisements about a policy than from the policymaker himself. And forget about honest debate, even in the constrained form of a presidential address followed by a response from the leader of the opposition.